Ruby Dee passed away at 91, and she was truly a grand dame. She not only graced the large and small screens but the Broadway stage as well. She was a petite woman with a larger-than-life persona who possessed thespian skills that were honed to a tee. There will never be another Miss Dee, and thankfully, her immense body of work will live on. Therefore, here are 20 tidbits about the great Miss Dee that you may not know about.
1) Ruby Dee’s actual name was Ruby Ann Wallace. Even though it felt as if Dee was married to the late-brilliant actor Ossie Davis forever, he was actually her second husband. The name “Dee” came from her first husband, blues singer Frankie Dee Brown, whom she married in 1941 and divorced in 1945.
2) Dee was born in Cleveland but considered herself a native New Yorker as she was raised in Harlem. She lived in the Empire State all her life making New Rochelle her home until she quietly passed away from natural causes.
3) Playing the piano and violin as well as reading literature and writing poetry is how Dee spent the majority of her childhood. Dee’s father and stepmother wanted her to fully absorb the cultural explosion that was happening all around her in an era that would later be referred to as the “Harlem Renaissance.”
4) Even though she had a commanding persona and a powerful voice that could fill a room, Dee was diminutiveat only 5’2.”
5) As a graduate of New York City’s Hunter College in 1944, Dee obtained degrees in French and Spanish.
6) In 1965, Dee became the first Black actress to perform lead roles at the famed American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ct., wowing audiences with her portrayals of “Kate” in “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Cordelia” in “King Lear.”
7) Dee caught the acting bug during her college days, acting in small school productions like “South Pacific.”
8) The year 1946 brought about Dee’s first Broadway acting job, where she landed the female lead in the drama “Jeb,” which centered around racial intolerance. Coincidentally, she first laid eyes on her husband-to-be Ossie Davis who played the male lead in the play. The pair walked down the aisle two years after they met and remained together until Davis passed away in 2005.
9) Not only did Dee grace a Broadway stage in 1946 but the big screen as well in the film “Love in Syncopation.”
10) Dee’s most-memorable role was her riveting performing in the Broadway classic “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1959, when she played opposite co-stars Sidney Poitier, Louis Gossett, and Ivan Dixon. In 1961, the play became a movie, and Dee again landed the role of “Ruth Younger,” the wife of “Walter Lee Younger“ portrayed by Poitier.
11) There were no Black actresses on nighttime soap operas until Dee landed the role of a neurosurgeon’s wife named “Alma Miles” in 1968 on the hottest show on TV at the time, “Peyton Place.”
12) Dee tirelessly campaigned for civil rights. During the turbulent sixties, she and Davis joined forces with grassroots organizations and marched with the likes of such human rights titans as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and actor Harry Belafonte. In 1963, Dee and Davis founded the Association of Artists for Freedom, where they and other actors of the time sought social justice for such tragic cases as the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing, when four little girls lost their lives due to the racially bias climate particularly in the South. Dee and her husband also served as a goodwill ambassadors to Lagos, Nigeria, in the sixties and in 1989 were voted in to the NAACP Image Award Hall of Fame. Dee was a member of the NAACP, CORE, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and Southern Christian Leadership Council.
13) Civil rights for her people was not the only cause Dee was passionate about; she also crusaded for underdogs across the board. She rallied against the Vietnam War and defended Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. In 1999, Dee and Davis were arrested for protesting the fatal shooting of an unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, by White police officers of the New York City Police Department.
14) Civil rights icon Malcolm X enjoyed a great and nurturing friendship with both Dee and her husband who even gave the eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral.
15) Never one to let anything keep her down, not even illness, Dee was a nearly a five-decade breast cancer survivor. When Dee was diagnosed, she underwent a lumpectomy, and as the surgeons were putting her to sleep, she uttered, “Count backward? I know the routine. I will not go under, get knocked out, surrender to oblivion!”
16) As much as “the First Couple of Black America” loved each other through the years, they once tried their hand at having an open marriage. In the pair’s joint book, “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together,” published around their 50th year of marriage, the duo spoke of the challenges of their long union, including a phase in the 1960s in which they agreed they could sleep with other people when their work schedules kept them apart. The arrangement was short-lived, they said. “We ultimately decided that what we had chosen as a possibility didn’t really work for us,” Davis said in 1999.
17) Dee wore many creative hats and being an author was just another one of them. Gifted with a literary pen as well, she authored two children’s books, “Two Ways to Count to Ten” and “Tower to Heaven,” and a collection of poems and short stories called “My One Good Nerve,” which she also performed as a one-woman show.
18) In 2008, at age 83, Dee became the second-oldest actress to be nominated for an Academy Award.
19) The quintessential wordsmith, Dee took joy in the simplest sayings that packed quite a wallop. Her favorite quote from the book “Charlotte’s Web” illustrates this best: “‘Isn’t life peculiar!’ said Jeremy. ‘Compared to what?’ said the spider.’”
20) Miss Dee was a wonderful and loving force of nature who loved children; she had three of her own. She once took time out of her busy schedule to visit a poetry competition in the Bronx, N.Y. of young inner-city elementary school children. The third grader who won the competition had to read her creation in front of an audience. The child was petrified but she somehow forged on. After the little girl was through reading her winning poem, Miss Dee came up to the child, lovingly cupped the little girl’s cherubic face in her hands and told her she was just “BRILLIANT!” Miss Dee then gave the third grader a kiss on the cheek and told her she would go on to do great things.
That little girl was me.
You will certainly be missed, Miss Ruby Dee!